What is Cognitive Therapy for Anxiety?

Michael Smathers

Social stress and anxiety can cause a person not to participate in social interactions because of fear of embarrassment or of what others may think of him or her. Anxiety can also come from family or career issues. No matter what causes someone to feel chronically anxious, it can keep baseline stress levels abnormally high. In worst-case scenarios, this constant stress can lead to serious health problems such as heart disease, ulcers and a weakened immune system. Cognitive therapy for anxiety helps a person who is anxious to redirect his or her negative thought patterns into more positively focused self-talk and teaches him or her effective stress management techniques.

Cognitive therapy may help patients redirect negative thought patterns.
Cognitive therapy may help patients redirect negative thought patterns.

This type of therapy, also known as cognitive-behavioral therapy, uses several approaches toward stemming anxiety. One of the first steps in cognitive therapy for anxiety is to determine what causes it. After determining the anxiety triggers, a cognitive-behavioral therapist can then work on helping the patient identify negative self-talk or automatic self-beration. The process of transforming negative self-talk into positive self-talk can then begin by acknowledging relevant issues and addressing constructive ways to deal with them. For example, the thought "I'm horrible with relationships, I'll never get a date," can become "I know I have problems with relationships, so how can I work on them and improve my dating life?"

Cognitive therapy might require journal entries.
Cognitive therapy might require journal entries.

Another skill that cognitive therapy for anxiety attempts to cultivate is learning to recognize the signs of an oncoming anxiety attack and handling it productively. Stress and anxiety produce a heightened heart rate, quicker breathing, nausea and indigestion. Deep-breathing exercises or relaxing visualizations of peaceful scenery during stressful situations can stave off some of the effects of anxiety or stop an impending attack altogether. Introducing gentle humor to the situation can also help. Cognitive therapy is considered one of the most effective treatments for generalized anxiety.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy takes several approaches to curbing anxiety.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy takes several approaches to curbing anxiety.

To ensure effective treatment, the patient has to understand that cognitive therapy for anxiety is a constant process requiring full commitment. Negative thought patterns can take weeks, months or years to relearn. Positive effects from cognitive therapy will not take place immediately. Instead, they are gradual and ongoing.

Recognizing the signs of an oncoming anxiety attack is one skill for cognitive therapy for anxiety.
Recognizing the signs of an oncoming anxiety attack is one skill for cognitive therapy for anxiety.

Patients should have regularly scheduled sessions with a therapist and should make consistent effort between sessions. Cognitive-behavioral therapy often incorporates "homework assignments" such as journal entries to ensure the full participation of the patient. No type of behavioral therapy or treatment can be effective without the patient taking an active role in his or her recovery.

Anxiety is characterized by heart palpitations and intense feelings of worry.
Anxiety is characterized by heart palpitations and intense feelings of worry.
Patients with social anxiety may benefit from exposure therapy and other cognitive behavior exercises.
Patients with social anxiety may benefit from exposure therapy and other cognitive behavior exercises.

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